Is your child not getting started?

Is your child:

  • ‘Stuck in the mud?”
  • Refusing to get started?
  • Saying, “Homework time? Oh, just a minute!”
  • Falling behind?
  • Procrastinating?
  • Taking forever on homework?
  • Slow to get started on tasks at school?
  • Crying, refusing, or hiding when she is supposed to start a project?

Making excuses?


Some children have trouble ‘initiating’ their actions. They just don’t get started. Homework time can be filled with yelling and crying at your house.

Teachers may get frustrated because your child drags her feet in class. Your child may be a procrastinator. You may say he is unmotivated. You may feel that she has a poor work ethic. Your child may get frustrated, anxious, and overwhelmed.

You may be annoyed with your smart kid who just doesn’t apply himself. You may be tired of hearing about missing assignments and poor grades.

You may find yourself telling your child, “If you just would have gotten started when I asked, you would be done by now.”

It may be that once your child does get going, the work isn’t all that challenging from there. Alternately, your child may have difficulty getting started and with other skills, such as sustaining attention, planning, and executing a plan to complete an assignment.

In that case, your child may be struggling with multiple skills needed to get started on tasks.


Clinically, ‘initiation’ is an executive function and refers to the ability to begin. This critical academic and life skill.

Initiation is…

“the ability to independently start an action or activity” [5].

Children who do not initiate well often struggle with homework and may fall behind in class. If you talk to your school team about difficulties in initiation, you are likely to hear the term executive function, which refers to tasks of initiating, planning, organizing, shifting and sequencing information. Deficits in these areas can be associated with ADHD or an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Children without disabilities may also struggle with initiation for other reasons. First, children may be overwhelmed by the task at hand.

They may have ‘low academic self-efficacy,’ meaning that they do not think they can do the task.

They also may find the task boring or uninteresting, making the parents wonder about their motivation. Finally, they may really want to do the task but just not know how to begin.

This difficulty is a problem of planning, organizing, monitoring, or attending. That is, your child may not know how to plan out the steps to a task, may not know the steps or have the materials handy to do the task, and may not sustain attention long enough to get it done.

Knowing that the task involves all these unknowns, your child may avoid the task altogether – not getting started.


If your child struggles with initiating, he or she is likely to need some support.

First, children with poor initiation tend to fall behind and may have behavior problems. They may get in trouble at home and at school for not getting things done.

Secondly, children with poor task initiation often struggle in group-work. No one wants to be on their team. They may seem bossy or nervous; they may be worried that if they get started, the final outcome may not conform to the vision.

Poor initiation often results in a lack of task completion in school. Sometimes, children with these challenges get in trouble for underperforming and lack of work completion.

If your child is having trouble getting started, it may be helpful to consult with your child’s teacher, school psychologist, or school counselor. In some cases, school psychologists may test for this symptom (see list below).

Your child’s struggles with taking initiative can be due to a difference in brain functioning, particularly in the development of the prefrontal lobe. Children with ADHD, Autism, Traumatic Brain Injury, or a recent concussion are likely to struggle with initiation due to a true deficit, not to a lack of motivation or effort.

If the problems are significant, it may be necessary to have a full evaluation with a psychologist to see whether or not emotional or cognitive differences are impacting your child’s abilities. If true issues in brain functioning are present, it is very important that your child not be blamed for his or her weaknesses.

You will have to provide lots of support, encouragement, and a gradual release to teach your child. A gradual release approach looks like: “I do”… “We do”… “You do.”

First, you do it yourself and model the task explicitly. Then, you do the task together. Finally, you ask your child to finish the task on his or her own.

Do not expect your child to initiate tasks independently at first. Help your child get started [5]. Do not ‘rush’ your child or engage in power struggles [6].

Assuming that it is a ‘won’t do’ problem when it is a ‘can’t do’ problem can be a big mistake [6], as this perspective reduces the ability to teach and nurture your child’s developing brain. Generally, if kids can do it, they will.

“Do not interpret passivity as a lack of interest. Be prepared to provide a jumpstart for your student by modeling, using physical cues, and being actively involved with her” [5].

Once you have a chance to build momentum and practice these skills consistently, you can begin to expect more initiation from your child.

At times, this initiation may be much later than expected, or not nearly as independent as you may hope, if a disability is present. However, provide persistent, patient support to give your child the maximum opportunity for success.

In other cases, your child’s brain may be okay, but he or she has a lack of motivation for the specific task. This challenge would look different.

If your child does not have a deficit in initiation skills, the issues can be inconsistent and less pervasive. It may be that your child has always kept up in math but now is refusing to get started on the long division math homework.

You may have a child that does well in most subjects but is at a stand-still on his research project. In this case, it is important to tap into your child’s intrinsic motivation.

Children who appear unmotivated are generally struggling with one of the following areas: competence, relationships, or autonomy [2].

Competence refers to your child’s belief that he can do it. If the task looks too hard or appears to be cloaked in frustration and failure, the child does not want to do it and will not get started.

Secondly, if the child feels little connection or relationship with the people who are involved in the task, whether it is a teacher, parent, or other students, he will not initiate that task. After all, what is the point, if the child doesn’t feel connected to the people who care about this project or assignment?

Finally, autonomy. Children do not feel motivated when they have no choice about how to do things.

Parents, you have already been in 5th grade. Now, it’s your child’s turn. Let him or her stumble, just like you did. He or she will get started much more readily and learn the lessons more readily when you get out of the way.


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Flexibility: trouble changing from one activity to the next or one approach to another can be related to poor initiation skills
  • Rigid behavior: trouble with getting ‘stuck’ on having own way or adherence to routines can be related to poor initiation skills
  • Behavior problems (Behaving): trouble with frustration, anger, or aggression can be associated with poor initiation skills
  • Emotional regulation: trouble with consistent crying or meltdowns over the task because of anxiety or as a way to refuse initiating tasks


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Gifted: extremely smart kids often struggle to get started because they are not sure the task will go as planned. They think they will fail to meet their own expectations
  • Specific Learning Disability (Educationally Identified Disabilities): poor initiation can impede progress in reading, writing or math. Children who struggle with academic tasks often refuse to get started.
  • TBI: difficulties with getting started are common in children with head injuries
  • Anxiety: worries over how to get started and performance anxiety may delay the initiation of tasks
  • ADHD: poor initiation may be due to disinhibition, hyperactivity, inattention, or poor executive functions in general
  • Autism Spectrum Disorders: may not get started due to poor processing speed, deliberate work style, perseveration on something else; rigid approach to problem solving, or poor executive functions in general
  • Behavior Disorders (Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Conduct Disorder): may not get started due to lack of respect for authority, defiance, or rule breaking behaviors


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • Clear Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child, or consult ‘live’ with a psychologist
  • School Psychologist: to help with the learning problems or emotional issues at school that may be caused by poor task initiation skills
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to help with symptoms of aggression and depression, behavior and social skills issues that could be related to task initiation
  • Neurologist: to help with the diagnosis of a brain injury or neurological issue causing the problems with task initiation

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:

  • Wisconsin Card Sort: test of adapting to changing rules and shifting attention
  • Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function (BRIEF): rating scale of executive functions, can be administered at school or private clinic
  • TOVA: continuous performance test of sustained attention and impulse control
  • Tower of London: test of visual planning, rule following, and problem solving
  • Comprehensive Trail Making Test: test of planning, inhibition and executive functions
  • BASC-3: emotional screening test that examines conduct, aggression, hyperactivity, and adaptive skills
  • Vineland-II: adaptive test for coping skills and externalizing/internalizing behaviors


[1] Siegel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2012). The whole brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind.


[2] Anderman, Eric M. & Anderman, Lynley Hicks (2009). Classroom motivation.

Amazon: Anderman/dp/0131116975/

[3] Cooper-Kahn, Joyce & Dietzel, Laurie C. (2008). Late, lost, and unprepared: A parent’s guide to helping children with executive functioning.


[4] Dawson, Peg & Guare, Richard (2009). Smart but scattered: The revolutionary “executive skills” approach to helping kids reach their potential.


[5] Lewis, PhD, Jeanne, Calvery, Ph.D., Margaret, & Lewis, Ph.D., Hal (2002). Brainstars. Brain Injury: Strategies for Teams and Re-education for Students. US Department of Education: Office of Special Programs.

[6] Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado. The Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado is the go-to resource for help and services for survivors of an injury to the brain, their families and providers.

Image Credit:
Description:Teenager in blue shoes standing at the start now line…
Stock Photo ID: #287750657 (Shutterstock)
By: mantinov
Previously Licensed on: May 20, 2017
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for Clear Child Psychology

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